Benedict Cumberbatch's 'Grinch' Gets a Makeover That Takes the Green Meanie Back to His Roots

DR. SEUSS’ THE GRINCH Still - Publicity - H 2018
Courtesy of Universal Studios

For the third major retelling of Dr. Seuss' classic tale How the Grinch Stole Christmas!, Illumination Entertainment decided to go back to the mean one's very roots. Instead of taking their cues from Chuck Jones' famous 1966 TV version, featuring the voice of Boris Karloff as both the narrator and the Grinch, or cribbing from Ron Howard's 2000 live-action version — in which Jim Carrey starred in green-face — filmmakers picked up Seuss' original 1957 children's book.

Scott Mosier, who along with Yarrow Cheney directed the new computer-animated The Grinch, which Universal will release Nov. 9 — just in time to try to spoil the holidays — expresses admiration for Jones' approach, acknowledging that the master animator's 2-D rendition of the seasonal spoilsport is "incredible." But for the Grinch's latest incarnation, produced for $75 million at the Illumination Mac Guff animation studio in Paris, he continues, "What we wanted to do is be inspired by the book and create our own version of the story and the world so that it could live on its own and be its own thing."

Cheney, who took the lead in designing the title sourpuss, voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch, further explains, "We went back to Dr. Seuss' original drawings — the way that he designs the Grinch with that pear-shaped body, the same kind of pear-shaped head, the bigger jaw and smaller cranium, and then things like that iconic wisp of hair on the top of his head." Additionally, since their Grinch would be appearing in a three-dimensional world, "We actually needed to apply fur to the character, that had to blow in the wind and catch snowflakes. All of these things were added, but they were all based on that shape that Dr. Seuss used in his initial conception of the character."

As Latifa Ouaou, the film's exec producer — no stranger to the material, she was the art department coordinator on the Howard version — puts it, "The challenge was how do you turn a 69-page storybook into a feature-length film. We didn't change the story, [but] we expanded the depth of characters."

Additionally, the filmmakers undertook a semi-renovation of Whoville, the warm, festive village that stands in contrast to the Grinch's cold, angular mountain. It grew to be much larger than the one that appears in the 1966 film — because, says Cheney, "we wanted to make sure that Whoville was a challenge to steal Christmas from. The Grinch's idea of 'I'm going to steal Christmas from this town in one night,' it's a lot more fun if that seems like an impossible task."

In detailing the town, "we tried to marry all of the wonderful textures of fur and snow and all the other textures in Whoville," Cheney continues. "We wanted it to feel tactile and to feel like it's a rich world, but not in a realistic sense. The design is where we pushed the stylization."

Details borrowed from the Seuss drawings range from the way the snow hangs over the rooftops to the arched windows, rounded roofs and slightly curved buildings. The filmmakers consulted other Seuss books, too, to see how he'd created bigger towns, and found idiosyncratic archways and staircases they borrowed. They also took inspiration from real-world towns, especially those in mountainous winter wonderlands like the French village of Annecy — as well as holiday events like a Parisian Christmas market.

Still, it all came back to whether the Grinch himself looked just right, and Mosier praises Cheney's design: "He nailed the classic Grinch silhouette. You know it's the Grinch when you see it, but it's a fully realized, three-dimensional version of the character."

This story first appeared in the Nov. 7 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.